Hale Chair in Applied Ethics Resources (2023)

Hale Chair in Applied Ethics Resources (1)

Doing Good and Avoiding Evil
Part I. Principles and Reasoning
by Lisa Newton

Hale Chair in Applied Ethics Resources (2)

III. The Principles of Ethics

5. The Basic Imperatives

Such conflict is fundamental to ethics, and is the major reason why ethics is famous as the discipline that has no clear answers. The human being is a complex creature, and when we extract human values from that complexity, we find them logically independent at the least, and often in opposition. There are, by tradition, two ways to formulate the opposition (see "Vocabulary of Ethics," above):

  1. As a conflict of values: A value is a desired state, which we try, in our dealings, to advance or enhance or promote. The concepts so far discussed can be treated as values that are difficult to pursue simultaneously--the happiest society, the fairest or most equal society, the most free society or the lifestyle incorporating the most freedom.
  2. As a conflict of imperatives: An imperative prescribes a duty to do or to forbear. It is occasionally more useful to see ethical conflict as a conflict of injunctions or prescriptions telling us what to do in any given situation. We are told--by the Law and the Prophets, by our religion, by our parents, by our employers, by the civil law--that we must respect the rights of others, be fair to everyone, and serve each other's needs. Sometimes it is not possible to do everything at once.

Over against every clear value, there is another value, which sometimes conflicts. Over against every clear imperative, there is a contrary imperative, equally clear, which sometimes applies. Ethics is the discipline that derives these values and imperatives, works out the consequences of our efforts to protect them, and musters what light it can to show us the possible reconciliations and the necessary compromises that attend their application in practice.

The terms "principle," "imperative," and "value" are sometimes used interchangeably. We will attempt, in the course of this book, to use "concept" to mean the principle in the form of a definition, as above; "value" as a desired end-state, to be achieved or enhanced; "imperative" as a prescription of duty. Morality is sometimes best understood as a system of imperatives, and generally imperatives are cited as the basis for the conclusions of applied ethics. The three concepts described above--welfare, justice and dignity--correspond to three imperatives for human conduct.

  1. Centering on welfare: Do No Harm, and Where Possible Do Good: Because we must live, and because we can suffer, we must value life and happiness: safety, protection from harm, absence of pain, hunger or suffering of any kind; enjoyment, pleasure. That is, we have an obligation to help and protect each other, to relieve suffering, to choose each action, or rule of action, according to the amount of pain it will relieve or happiness it will provide. This general duty we may call beneficence, or concern for welfare.

    This imperative is often broken down into four logically related but different prescriptions:

    1. Do no harm (the duty of non-maleficence): In the pattern of duties to do good and to avoid harm, this duty is the negative, individual, and immediate part. (For instance: no matter how much fun it would be, do not blow up the bridge.)
    2. Prevent harm wherever possible (the duty of prudence, or stewardship): this duty generalizes the one before, enjoining us to attempt to keep agencies besides ourselves from doing harm. (If the bridge is near collapse, act to shore it up and keep people off it until it is fixed.)
    3. Remedy harm wherever possible (the duty of compassion or charity): this duty is the proactive equivalent of the two before, enjoining concern for suffering and positive efforts to relieve it. (If the bridge has collapsed, pull the people out of the water, even if you don't know them and have no other obligations to them.)
    4. Do good, provide benefit, wherever possible. (Build better bridges.)

Note that in this pattern of duties, the duty of non-maleficence takes moral priority (i.e., if you can provide benefit to many people, only at the cost of doing harm to a few, there is a presumption against doing whatever would result in the benefit and harm). The second two follow from the same presumption, and the last comes into play only when the others are taken care of. The priority of non-maleficence can, of course, be overridden, as when the state takes my property to build a road, doing harm to me in order to do good for many; but it can only do so on proper authority, with at least an attempt to provide compensation, and on presentation of compelling reasons.

  1. Centering on Justice: Observe the Requirements of Fair Dealing: Because we must live together, we must adhere to rules of equal treatment, justice, fairness, and rule of law (equality before the law); trust and trustworthiness, honesty in word and deed. Then we have an obligation to acknowledge our membership in, and dependence on, the human community and the community in which we live--to contribute to its life, obey its laws, customs and policies, to be honest in all our dealings with our fellows and above all to hold ourselves accountable to them for our actions, especially as they affect others. This duty we may call the duty of justice.

    This duty also has recognizable sub-imperatives:

    1. Obey the law and the codes of your profession. All are equally bound by these general prescriptions, and it is not fair to make an exception of yourself. Also, as possible: take responsibility for enforcement.
    2. Treat all groups alike: do not condition treatment of persons on their membership in a favored group. This is the duty of non-discrimination, or provision of equal opportunity.
    3. Act affirmatively to remedy the results of past injustices; wherever possible, seek out the least advantaged and the previously excluded for occupation of preferred posts.
    4. Recognize merit: treat people as they deserve to be treated based on what they have done or merited. Included in this general duty is the more personal duty of gratitude.
  2. Centering on dignity: Respect Persons (as autonomous beings): Because we aspire to the full potential of humanity, we must value freedom. We take liberty, autonomy, rationality to be ideals, and value them in others as much as we prize our own. The human enterprise is an endless quest to become better, wiser, more loving people, and we must cultivate people and institutions that will protect that quest. We have an obligation to respect the choices of others, to allow them the space to live their lives, to the end, the way they see fit. For ourselves, we have the obligation to realize our own potential, not only to discern for ourselves the moral course of action, and to take responsibility for the moral choices we make, but to extend our knowledge and the scope of our reason to become as fully as possible the autonomous persons we are capable of being. This duty we may call the duty of respect for persons.

    Again, more specific duties can be derived from Respect:

    1. Tell the truth: the duty of veracity or truthtelling is primarily derived from the duty to enhance autonomy by making rational decision possible. No person can act rationally if denied the truth. From this duty we derive the requirement of informed consent in the health care professions, and the duty of full disclosure in law and business.
    2. Celebrate differences, whether individual or cultural. Create a positive atmosphere for the developing of idiosyncratic lifestyles that fulfill individual needs and preferences--as long as they violate no one else's rights.

Clearly none of these imperatives is optional. We cannot choose not to have bodies. We cannot choose not to need each other, and although we may sometimes wish we could, we cannot choose not to choose, not to be free. And these imperatives are logically independent one from another. They can conflict. All ethical dilemmas follow from that fact.

Materials prepared by Lisa H. Newton, Ph.D. 1998

  • Previous section: III. The Principles of Ethics: 1-4
  • Next section: IV. The Forms of Moral Reasoning


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